Alan Chargin will be sharing stories behind how Capitol Hill small businesses got their start. This week, he sat down with Matt and Martha Huizenga, owners of DC Access. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did you know Capitol Hill needed or wanted a business like yours?
Martha: In 1999, Matt was working as a network and computer consultant and still using dial up to access the internet! We weren’t very fond of our national provider, and of course we’d heard similar complaints from many of our friends, so we sort of just asked each other: Can’t we just do this better ourselves?
What came first?
Matt: We researched and built our own server and gave some of our friends access to it as a trial. They all agreed it was better, and were willing to pay for it, so we started to believe we had something going. It was …a side project for awhile, but in 2003 when we met with several building owners and started offering wireless, we realized we could really scale the operation. Martha was working for a software company at the time, but it seemed likely that company was going under.
Martha: Since Matt needed help to keep DC Access up to speed, it seemed clear that we should both jump in 100% and run with it full-time.
What was the biggest expense starting out?
[A]ll of the equipment. In the early 2000s, most of what we were using was still part of a brand new industry, and the parts weren’t nearly as flexible as we think of technology as being today. We had to get exact components to fit with each other, and the cost really added up. For that reason, the only marketing we could consistently count on was word of mouth, and the occasional postcards at the dry cleaners!
Did you ever experience that “big break” feeling as business owners?
We fancy ourselves as the slow-and-steady type with DC Access! Our first big milestone was hiring another employee in 2005. That’s when it really felt like we had built something bigger than just our family and our house. Also, beginning to offer service to several buildings in NW was a huge move. It required us to analyze more closely what we’d done right and wrong in Capitol Hill and how we could apply those practices and lessons to a new operation.
Is it particularly hard for you now, with so much technology seemingly being so easy for many more people to obtain?
Definitely a lot tougher now than early on when there were significantly fewer options. We distinguish ourselves with our excellent customer service and our local knowledge and expertise. Obviously we still need to offer consistent, high speed service to be an effective product. But we’ve seen evidence, and heard specifically from customers that our service is a huge plus. We offer just internet without anything else bundled into it, which is preferable to many customers who don’t want to overpay. We also offer exact appointment times instead of these multi-hour windows so you don’t need to miss half the day waiting for us to come.
What do you offer besides internet that our readers might not know about?
We offer broadcast TV installation and service, which actually wasn’t in our initial business plan until we “cut the cord” and realized people might be interested in the same setup we developed for ourselves.
What’s been your biggest challenge since officially becoming an LLC?
Probably knowing how to manage cash flow and personnel, and knowing when you can and cannot afford to hire another employee versus just needing to put in longer hours. It’s also tough finding the right people. All our employees need to understand the internet, because we want to continue to set ourselves apart on the customer service end. Local DC insight is important too, given the close community that Capitol Hill represents.
How many people do you currently employ?
We have 6 employees now in addition to ourselves: A mix of tech people who do the installations and repairs, marketing, admin and customer service support staff.
Do you have plans to expand your service to the rest of DC?
We always want to expand, but it’s far easier and more effective for us to expand on the edges of our current network than it is to expand to new areas. For now, we’re focused on just pushing and pushing to the outer edges of our current service areas. Shameless plug: we offer deals to full apartment and condo buildings that want to switch to our service, so please reach out if you have questions about that!
What are your other growth goals for the next year?
As we mentioned earlier, we’ve never really gone for huge growth, preferring nice steady growth. DC Access is a nice extension of our personalities in that way. It doesn’t necessarily make for a riveting story, but it’s more important to us to maintain a super high level of customer service, and slow-and-steady growth allows for that. We are always researching to stay up to date with the latest technology opportunities and we only switch technologies if doing so will provide a better experience for our customers. This involves a lot market research to find out what value-adds our customers are interested in so we never change just to change. We try not get blinded by the shiny new thing!
Switching gears for a second- what are your most visited websites?
Matt: Sorry to be cliché, but it’s probably just Google News. For Martha though, it’s probably swimming and triathlon websites. She’s always staying up to date with the news in the community and researching her next big event.
What’s the toughest event Martha has completed?
Martha: Definitely the Chesapeake Bay Bridge swim, a 4.4 mile open water swim. Thankfully, Matt was there to meet her at the end!
Let’s close with any advice you have for prospective small business owners?
This seems obvious, but a dedicated business plan really is imperative. Also make sure to network with people within the industry you want to enter, even if it’s just volunteering somehow in that industry to learn from the inside first. Become a larger part of your community because your community will support you if you show them you care. Something we learned the hard way, know that you most likely won’t make it in the first year, so have another plan for income until your business can really support itself. Contrary to popular opinion, business owners generally are not rich, so be sure you’ve found your passion and will enjoy the ride because money can’t be the only motivation.
Comments? Suggestions? Leave me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.